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William of Occam

William of Occam (both: ŏk´əm), c.1285–c.1349, English scholastic philosopher. A Franciscan, Occam studied and taught at Oxford from c.1310 until 1324, when he was summoned to the papal court at Avignon to answer charges of heresy in his writings. He waited there until 1328 for a judgment. When it appeared that Pope John XXII was about to condemn his position Occam fled to the protection of Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, whom he supported in his struggle with Pope John. He is thought to have died in the black plague that swept Europe in the middle of the 14th cent. Occam's teachings mark an important break with previous medieval philosophy, especially with the Aristotelian realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. A nominalist, he denied that the forms of knowledge corresponded to those of being. He saw our concepts to be naturally occasioned by the world, but thought could not be taken as a measure of being. Specifically, Occam denied the existence of universals except in our minds and in language. An empiricist, Occam disputed the self-evidence of principles of Aristotelian logic (like the final cause) and of Christian theology (like the existence of God). For this reason Occam severely restricted the province of philosophy in order to safeguard theology, denying the competence of reason in matters of faith. Just as he had maintained a distinction between our concepts and being, he saw creation not as a necessary consequence of the divine intellect, as Aquinas had, but as an expression of God's limitless will. In the area of logic, where he had great influence, he is remembered for his use of the principle of parsimony, formulated as "Occam's razor," which enjoined economy in explanation with the axiom, "What can be done with fewer [assumptions] is done in vain with more." Like Marsilius of Padua, Occam strongly opposed the temporal power of the pope and wrote numerous works on the subject. His Dialogus is a thorough discussion of political theories.

See his philosophical writings (tr. and ed. by P. Boehner, 1957); biography by M. M. Adams (2 vol., 1986); see also E. A. Moody, The Logic of William of Ockham (1935, repr. 1965); A. S. McCrade, The Political Thought of William of Ockham (1974).

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William of Occam

William of Occam (c.1289–1349). Occam is a village near Guildford in Surrey, from which William presumably took his name. An Oxford Franciscan, he is said to have been a pupil of Duns Scotus and may have later studied in Paris. His thought developed when his order became involved in a protracted and acrimonious dispute with the papacy on the subject of evangelical poverty, which the Franciscans embraced. Occam's writings in defence of his order led to a summons to Avignon and a condemnation by Pope John XXII. In 1328 Occam and his superior fled to Munich, where they were given protection by the emperor, Lewis of Bavaria. The continuing controversy led Occam to examine the question of sovereignty and the relations of church and state. He argued that the papacy had no standing in temporal matters and that within the church it was subordinate to a general council: though the sovereignty of temporal rulers originally derived from the people, it could not be challenged, save for gross turpitude. In his general methodology, he emphasized both the power and limitations of logic: it could not touch revealed truth and faith, and since it dealt largely with terms of argument, the principle of economy should apply and as few assumptions as possible should be made—hence, ‘Occam's razor’.

J. A. Cannon

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William of Occam

William of Occam (1285–1349) English scholastic philosopher and theologian. Contributing to the development of formal logic, he employed the principle of economy known as Occam's Razor; that is, a problem should be stated in its most basic terms. As a Franciscan monk, he upheld Franciscan ideas of poverty against Pope John XXII and was excommunicated. In 1328, he was imprisoned in Avignon, France, but he escaped and fled to Munich, where he later died.

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Occam, William of

William of Occam: see William of Occam.

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